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Tag: Speculative fiction Page 1 of 7

Book Review: A Borrowed Man by Gene Wolfe

As perhaps is appropriate, I came to read A Borrowed Man by Gene Wolf in a very roundabout way.  I decided to buy Interlibrary Loan after seeing it in the bargain area at Barnes and Noble.  I was in a bit of reading funk as far as fiction so was looking for something different to shake things up. I then found out that it was the second book in a series.  So checked out A Borrowed Man from the library.

It is perhaps a hundred years in the future, our civilization is gone, and another is in place in North America, but it retains many familiar things and structures. Although the population is now small, there is advanced technology, there are robots, and there are clones.

E. A. Smithe is a borrowed person. He is a clone who lives on a third-tier shelf in a public library, and his personality is an uploaded recording of a deceased mystery writer. Smithe is a piece of property, not a legal human.

A wealthy patron, Colette Coldbrook, takes him from the library because he is the surviving personality of the author of Murder on Mars. A physical copy of that book was in the possession of her murdered father, and it contains an important secret, the key to immense family wealth. It is lost, and Colette is afraid of the police. She borrows Smithe to help her find the book and to find out what the secret is. And then the plot gets complicated.

I found it to be an odd book. I don’t have an history of reading Wolfe, however, so have nothing to judge it against or to give the style some context.

At some level it is just a mystery but there is the fact that the narrator is a re-clone of a murder mystery author from 100 years ago who can be checked out from the library. It has been a while since a mystery, let alone one with such a unique plot device. I think the main character’s style/voice threw me off. Perhaps I missed some symbolism and depth, but even though I felt like I found a rhythm in the second half of the story, it just didn’t really click for me.

Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children #1) by Seanan McGuire

I’m playing around with this format to see is this might be a way to quickly and easily post short reviews of book that I have read but don’t plan on offering an in-depth review.

I saw Every Heart a Doorway at a local bookstore and added it to my TBR list. Finally borrowed it for Kindle from Libby app and read it. I figured this would be something I enjoy. “Creative spin on classic fairy tale/mythology/speculative fiction trope.”

It was interesting… but unsatisfying somehow.

As is often the case with first books in a series, it felt like a setup that didn’t quite payoff. This is a novella so it really does read like an introduction. It is also like one part speculative fiction, with a heavy dose of paint by numbers “diversity,” and one part murder mystery. I don’t think the two blended very well. My sense is the first aspect is more interesting than the second and thus was undercut by the latter; particularly in the second half of the book.

The Passengers by John Marrs

As should be pretty clear by now, I am the height of inconsistency when it comes to reading and writing book reviews. Whether it is my fickle nature, a lack of inspiration or the business of life, I have just not been able to consistently post reviews here this year (well, the last couple of years).

The Passengers is a good example. Signed up for a blog tour, got a copy of the book from NetGalley, read it, and promptly failed to post a review when it came out on August 27 like I had said I would. So sorry for the delay.

What intrigued me about the book was both its plot and its technological and philosophical elements:

You’re riding in your self-driving car when suddenly the doors lock, the route changes and you have lost all control. Then, a mysterious voice tells you, “You are going to die.”

Just as self-driving cars become the trusted, safer norm, eight people find themselves in this terrifying situation, including a faded TV star, a pregnant young woman, an abused wife fleeing her husband, an illegal immigrant, a husband and wife, and a suicidal man.

From cameras hidden in their cars, their panic is broadcast to millions of people around the world. But the public will show their true colors when they are asked, “Which of these people should we save?…And who should we kill first?”

As I mentioned on Goodreads, this is another book that feels stuck between 3 and 4 stars. Enjoyed it? Yes. REALLY liked it? Eh, not exactly.

And as others have noted, this book has Hollywood action flick written all over it. It is a unique combination of philosophical/moral conundrums and action. Lots of twists and turns and a plot that keeps you guessing.

It slows down. however, when it turns to the internal emotional lives of the characters. Might have been a stronger, tighter book if there were less attempts at amateur psychology. And at times the characters are a little too stock (Corrupt politician, female character who seems weak but turns out to be strong, etc.).

Still, a pretty entertaining summer read despite the uncomfortable feeling that these issues (moral, political, technological) all lie in our future.

The Test by Sylvain Neuvel

This was an impulse library pick up and read. I read the Themis Files series by the same author and I am always tempted by novellas and short pieces of fiction these days so I checked out The Test and put it by the bed for nighttime reading. It turned out to be an enjoyable read, although it is a dark and in many ways disturbing one.

Britain, the not-too-distant future.

Idir is sitting the British Citizenship Test.

He wants his family to belong.

Twenty-five questions to determine their fate. Twenty-five chances to impress.

When the test takes an unexpected and tragic turn, Idir is handed the power of life and death.

How do you value a life when all you have is multiple choice?

Despite its disturbing nature, the strong characters, thought provoking and suspenseful plot, and unexpected ending make it a worthwhile read. A novella that packs a punch in a few words.

This is one of those books that you should read it in one sitting, put it down and let it percolate, and then read again. Would be a fascinating book club read as well, as different people likely have very different reactions given their politics, culture, taste, upbringing, worldview, etc.

It touches on immigration, assimilation, ethics and morality, family, and more all in a hundred pages. What struck me on first reading was the way extreme choices fundamentally change a person. How even if you make the “right” choice it could have negative consequences; unforeseen and unalterable ones. Tragedy tests the human psyche and soul; sometimes beyond the breaking point.

Highly recommended for fans of futuristic fiction that makes you think.

The Space Between the Stars by Anne Corlett

I was intrigued by The Space Between the Stars mostly because of the interesting concept/hook: virus threatens human existence so how do the few survivors react, order and civilization versus utopia and anarchy, etc. After reading it, I felt it had some promise but plenty of weaknesses.  For example, I felt like the lead character was prickly and angst ridden to the point of annoyance. On the other hand, give Corlett credit for creating a character whose personality and backstory are consistent and likely realistic. I also felt like the faith/religious element was odd, nebulous and hard to follow.

It was interesting enough that I kept reading but just didn’t quite grab me. Perhaps it is not quite my genre; a little too much romance and family drama for my tastes. Plus. lots of interesting philosophical questions bouncing around but not a lot of answers and at the expense of the plot and character development.

A few critics had very different reactions as well.

Marilyn Dahl at Shelf Awareness was full of praise:

Anne Corlett has taken the themes of apocalypse, people attempting to create Utopia but unleashing Armageddon, population engineering and breeding programs, and put her particular stamp on the familiar. The Space Between the Stars is a sci-fi story laced with homey details like e-readers and jigsaw puzzles–there are no esoteric descriptions of warp drives or biodomes or aliens. But there is adventure, there is romance, there is self-discovery. Jamie looks at a blue sky, which “felt like a lie, after so much time spent up above it, in the black of space. It was just something to hide beneath, to avoid seeing how wrenched and scattered among the stars they all really were.” But she finds, in this intriguing and wise story, what can fill the space between the stars.

Kirkus? Uh, not so much:

In the hands of someone with more literary skill, this story could have been something akin to Station Eleven in space, but it isn’t even close. The prose is insipid, with some eye-rollingly trite sentences, such as, “Home’s what’s left over when you’ve figured out all the places you don’t want to be.” Protagonist Jamie is staggeringly unlikable. For instance, she bemoans a past miscarriage, then reveals she abhorred her unborn child. Further flashbacks reveal that she’d only gotten pregnant because Daniel—the same man she’s desperately seeking—wanted a child. Worse, there’s virtually no science in this science fiction. The aforementioned virus, which inexplicably turns human bodies into dust, laughably calls to mind Daffy Duck being disintegrated by Marvin the Martian—although the science fiction of Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century is arguably better than anything here. The worldbuilding is dropped into the story in steaming piles of infodump that raise more questions than they answer. And after Jamie uncovers the absurdly obvious origins of the deadly virus (which had been telegraphed from the very beginning), the entire story is tied up in a big, banal bow.

Terrible science and even worse fiction.

I didn’t love it like Shelf Awareness but I didn’t hate it quite like Kirkus.  To me it didn’t live up to its promise but get some credit for the concept.

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